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Explain One Play: Warriors + Triangle Offense = Harrison Barnes three

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We do an analysis of how the Warriors used a triangle offense play to put away the Nuggets game last night.

Brains at work.
Brains at work.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It's pretty easy to see the Spurs influence on the Warriors playbook, and the Suns Seven Seconds or Less influence, but the triangle influence is more subtle.  We analyze a triangle offense play which put away the Nuggets game last night.

The Triangle Offense

Steve Kerr's NBA career was made possible by the triangle offense. In many ways, so was Luke Walton's career. So naturally, the triangle offense has had a deep influence on two architects of the Warriors Offense.

And more profoundly, all the championships of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal (except one) were carried out in this format (so that's 11 of the last 25 NBA champions). And of course, Phil Jackson and Tex Winter built their coaching reputations on this system.

There is a lot of mysticism (both supportive and critical) around this offense, but the general principles are not too hard to understand. Here's a slightly different take on the Triangle Basics from what is out there on the internet:

  • Most plays start with four players spaced around the perimeter and a player posting up in the middle post, and the ball passed into the post.
  • Everybody should be spaced about 15 feet apart so no one can be double teamed without having someone be open. Players can switch positions.
  • For any defensive alignment or pressure, there is a natural counter which everyone on offense knows and needs to enact in sync in response to the defense. There's a rhythm to the first two passes that sets the beat for the whole team to follow.
  • The offense was called the triple-post offense by the originator Tex Winter, but it's known as the triangle because most plays start in the format of a triangle on one side (the post and two sideline players), which can switch sides to a two man game on the other ("weak") side.

That's the main gist. Of course the details, cooperation, intelligence, selflessness and rhythmic harmony required make the offense a challenge to teach and run. Phil Jackson notably traded the entire Knicks team (except Carmelo Anthony) for peanuts because they were deemed too knuckleheaded or selfish to run the offense. (Read Charlie Rosen's articles on Phil Jackson to get all the trashy gossip.)

A Simple Triangle Offense Play: Guard Squeeze

For example, here is the Guard Squeeze Option (Diagram 70A from Winter's book) run by our very own Steve Kerr from the second Jordan-Pippen threepeat Bulls. You'll see Kerr feed the post and then screen for the next shooter, who gets double-teamed, so then Kerr drifts out to the arc and gets an open three.

Here's another version of the same action, which begins on one side of the court and then swings to the other side. Then you see the same action: Ron Harper feeds the post (Dennis Rodman!) and screens for the next shooter (Steve Kerr). Kerr fakes out the man who switches to him and gets an easy midrange jumper.

The Warriors Run The Triangle Guard Squeeze

The Warriors did not install the triangle offense, because it is hard to learn. But they do use some sets from the Triangle and the basic ideas of spacing and having weak side counters to defensive pressure.

The guard squeeze is a pretty simple idea, and this was one of the first plays that Steve Kerr installed with the Warriors in preseason 2014, and one of the first plays that I wrote about while dissecting the new Warriors offense. (Go to that old breakdown if you want many more clips of this action.)   Long time readers probably have recognized this play, even with Kerr running it. Back then, I called it the Post-Cross.

In fact, the action is simple enough that other teams are starting to adopt the play (see for instance the Bucks new offense).

The Warriors run this action fairly frequently. It's a great action since you have Klay Thompson or Stephen Curry screening for each other, so defenders are going to have a tough choice to make.

Here's an example from the Nuggets game. You will see Festus Ezeli post up, Klay Thompson feed the post and run to screen for Stephen Curry. Ezeli will opt to keep the ball to make a power move to the basket. Even though Ezeli doesn't pass, notice how the action gets Curry open for a spot-up three (and Klay fading out to be open for a jumper as well).

Ezeli kind of gets tunnel vision in attacking the hoop, and misses an open Curry three (which has a higher expected value than a layup at this point) and an open Klay. But it's good to see the Warriors putting Ezeli in position to start making these reads. Up until now, Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green (and David Lee last year) were the main drivers in the post for this play. If Ezeli can be competent, he may yet earn the big bucks and push Bogut for playing time sooner than people think.

The Warriors Run Triangle Guard Squeeze vs Nuggets Surprise Defense

Here is the real play I wanted to discuss, from late in the game. With about two minutes left, the Nuggets have clawed their way back from what looked like another 50 point blowout and the lead is 13. Things are just close enough to be interesting and to give Coach Luke Walton some gray hair, but one score should seal the game.

You'll see this play start with Curry making a nice defensive play (a block I think! what can't the Boy Wonder do?), pushing the pace and then resetting the play to the old favorite post-cross/guard squeeze. Then he passes to Andre Iguodala who feeds Draymond Green in the post, and Andre prepares to screen for Curry. Curry runs over to accept the screen. But something funny happens before screens are set. Can you see what secret weapon Denver pulls out to disrupt the post-cross?

Yes, they pull a surprise double-team of Draymond Green as soon as he catches the ball in the post. This is interesting, because I don't believe I've seen any other team in the league try to beat this play with a blitz of the post.

In theory, this is a terrible idea, because the triangle spacing is exactly designed so that you can't double-team without leaving someone open. Furthermore, every smallball Warrior on the court has three point range.

In practice, it also turned out to be a bad idea. Draymond Green makes a great decision with the ball. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, the double team comes exactly from the direction of where the open man Klay is standing. (Next time, they might try blitzing from the baseline.)  Draymond fires the ball to the weak side to Klay. One Nugget is guarding Klay and Harrison Barnes. The defender closes out to Klay, and Klay quickly finds Barnes for his sweet spot corner 3. Game over.

(In practice, you don't know what people will do under pressure, so why not try it when you're down big and throwing a Hail Mary? I like to see the Nuggets trying something different. If they had blitzed Ezeli, it might have been a very different outcome.)

Final Notes

  • You can see from the final play how the triangle spacing discourages double teams. This is the main reason it was used for Jordan, Shaq and Kobe. The secondary reason was to give structured roles to everyone to force those alpha players to involve their supporting cast and keep them engaged.
  • Hat tip to @crusaderball23 who helped me track down the exact diagram in Tex Winter's book.

Previously on One Play